After Christchurch, technology has reached a reckoning

19 Mar 2019366 Views

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Christchurch, New Zealand. Image: © msw/Stock.adobe.com

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Following the tragic killings in New Zealand, arguments for the law of unintended consequences of technology have run out of road, says John Kennedy.

The viciousness of the attack that took at least 50 lives, some aged as young as three, as they peacefully went about prayer in Christchurch in New Zealand last Friday (15 March) has shocked the world. It wasn’t just the horror and loss of life that shocked people, but also the fact that it happened in what is deemed by many to be one of the safest places on Earth.

But trying to understand the depths of hatred and madness that would cause another human being to do what they did to others vied with the incongruity of the fact that it was actually live-streamed to the world while it happened using an app designed for extreme-sports enthusiasts.

‘Speak the names of those who are lost, rather than the name of the man who took them’
– JACINDA ARDERN

Late Friday morning I started getting calls from radio stations looking for angles around the fact that technology played such a prominent role in the attacks, and I just felt numb and a little sick.

They say that when evil occurs, what is most shocking and often difficult to process is the banality of the perpetrators, the ordinary faces capable of doing the cruellest things to others.

But what is now hard to separate is the extraordinary capabilities of the technologies that have become part of the narrative.

Tech needs to be a force for good

“In the first 24 hours we removed 1.5m videos of the attack globally, of which over 1.2m were blocked at upload,” Facebook said in a tweet.

However, within hours footage still remained on Facebook as well as Instagram, WhatsApp and Google’s YouTube. The footage also remained available on file-sharing sites such as New Zealand-based Mega.nz.

It prompted a debate about the role technology had played in the attack. This isn’t the first time. Live-streamed crimes that were removed before include a father in Thailand who broadcast himself killing his daughter on Facebook. That video was removed after more than a day and 370,000 views. Other live-streamed atrocities include the assault of an 18-year-old in Chicago and the fatal shooting of a man in Ohio in 2017.

“Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by the horrific terrorist attacks in Christchurch,” said Chris Sonderby, vice-president and deputy general counsel at Facebook. “We remain shocked and saddened by this tragedy and are committed to working with leaders in New Zealand, other governments and across the technology industry to help counter hate speech and the threat of terrorism. We continue to work around the clock to prevent this content from appearing on our site, using a combination of technology and people.”

I don’t believe for a second there is anyone in the technology world that could have envisioned technology devised to capture amazing sporting achievements or important family occasions could see it being used the way it has been on what should have been an ordinary Friday morning in Christchurch.

The incredible capability of the internet and the technology on our smartphones, the capability to do so much good, and the possibility of transforming lives economically and socially, have instead often been put to nefarious use. The event in Christchurch was just one, but a very critical, manifestation of tech being used for evil. The transmission of that footage came through a wearable camera, was fed through an app on a smartphone, then traversed mobile networks and data centres and instantaneously reached the entire internet, all in real time.

Despite its potential, technology has had side effects that are often lamented or explained away by the industry as the law of unintended consequences.

A garden of good and evil

It is fair to say that people who created the internet, wireless networks, phones, computers, all the parts of our digital lives, wanted to build stuff that is truly useful.

‘If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web’
– TIM BERNERS-LEE

But instead, we are still trying to get our heads around the ever-present reality of hackers, cyberattacks, the vast erosion of our privacy, information overload, viral misinformation, you name it.

Last week on the 30th anniversary of the world wide web, its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, made an impassioned plea for us to focus on building a better internet.

“Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But, given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

The tech industry has to play a role in building a better web, as do governments, entrepreneurs, innovators and all of us who use it.

Could Facebook and other platforms have reacted faster in blocking the content? Some have argued that the controls do exist, but they could also have blocked genuine news sources. I would say that that is a tech problem to fix right there.

The fact that these tech giants are massive money-making enterprises does not help their case in a lot of people’s minds. As I’ve said already, I do not for a second believe that anyone in the leadership of companies from Apple to Facebook or Google ever wanted or envisioned their technology to be exploited for evil. But falling back on the argument of the unintended consequences of the use of technology is no longer a valid argument. It is a cop-out.

These companies have the cash – hordes of it – to work harder and try harder to prevent technology adding to the world’s ills.

Governments also have a role. In Ireland in recent weeks, Communications Minister Richard Bruton, TD, revealed that new child safety laws as well as a new role of Online Safety Commissioner are to be created to fast-track disputes over privacy, bullying and defamation. Ireland has already beefed up the powers of its Data Protection Commissioner, who plays a prominent role in safeguarding European privacy and holding tech giants to task. It remains to be seen what powers the Online Safety Commissioner will have and if the role will have real teeth.

The outpouring of love and warmth by the New Zealand people and indeed people all over the world in the aftermath of the killings is deeply touching as is the dignity, empathy, and the principled stance and leadership of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

In a speech to parliament, Ardern implored others “to speak the names of those who are lost, rather than the name of the man who took them”.

Tech can do its part by realising a reckoning has been reached and trying harder to build a safer web that cannot be used to fanfare evil.

The law of unintended consequences carries no water. Not after Christchurch.

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John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist who served as editor of Siliconrepublic.com for 17 years.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com